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Policy Note

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Policy Note delivers timely, progressive commentary on issues that affect British Columbians, including the economy, poverty, inequality, climate change, provincial budgets, taxes, public services, employment and much more. Contributors include staff and research associates from the B.C. Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). The views expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCPA. Visit the CCPA's Policy Note blog at www.PolicyNote.ca.

Want to create good, sustainable jobs for Canada? Try co-ops.

| December 1, 2015
Image: Policy Note blog

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In the coming months and years, the new federal government will make important decisions about jobs: how we create them, protect them and make them more sustainable.

Many Canadians believe there's a trade-off to be made between employment and environmental sustainability. But that doesn't have to be the case -- particularly if we look at co-operatives as a source of jobs.

You might be familiar with co-ops already -- you probably know of housing co-ops, or you might be one of the more than a million B.C. residents who are members of a credit union. But you might not be familiar with the potential that co-ops can have in terms of employment -- especially employment with environmental sustainability in mind.

Here's why I think that the new federal government ought to consider co-ops:

  • Co-ops are businesses that put the interests of their members first, and not necessarily profit. This means that co-ops can do business in ways that regular, for-profit businesses can't. For example, La Siembra Co-operative in Ottawa can source fair-trade chocolate (they were the first in North America to do so) and pay their worker-owners a fair wage, because that's what they've decided to do.
  • Because co-ops are responsible to their members first, they can also dive into emerging markets in ways that might generate stockholder resistance in other businesses. Vancouver Renewable Energy Co-op and Viridian Energy Co-operative, for example, lept into transitioning private homes and buildings to solar energy well before other companies thought it might be a worthwhile investment.
  • Co-ops can be designed by young, values-driven people who want to work on matters they're passionate about -- and that's a real challenge in today's job market where contract work and casualization rule. Co-ops like Sustainability Solutions Group have been built by a new generation of values-driven activists to both change the world and provide good jobs.

Co-ops provide good jobs not only in terms of environmental sustainability, but also in terms of qualitative measures of employment -- things like job satisfaction, participation, control over work, and input into broad direction. Who amongst us wouldn't want that kind of a job?

However, one of the most interesting things that I've found in my research is the impact that worker owned co-ops could have in terms of creating jobs, especially in the new and emerging industries and markets such as alternative energy. It's hard to pivot large, profit-oriented businesses away from guaranteed revenues in proven technologies like oil and fossil fuels, because stakeholders expect steady growth and returns on investment, but it's easy for workers who are passionate about change to build an organization that helps them do that. And in many parts of the world, co-ops do have tremendous impacts.

Indeed, co-ops create hundreds of millions of jobs around the world, and are a significant percentage of total employment in countries like China (over 21 per cent of all jobs), Italy (10.9 per cent), and Japan (8.64 per cent). Even in Canada, co-ops employ hundreds of thousands of people, and in some very important sectors of the employment market. In Quebec, for example, there are many co-ops in the forestry sector, and even worker-owned co-operatives providing ambulance service. In many cases, these are places where for-profit companies wouldn't dare go -- and they're jobs that are essential for communities. In some of the most economically challenged communities in the United States, private-sector unions like the Steelworkers are experimenting with supporting unionized worker co-ops -- creating jobs for their members and building community economies at the same time. That idea needs to be explored in Canada; I think its time has come.

We're often told that there's a choice to be made between sustainability and jobs. This is probably a choice that the new government in Ottawa is going to be wrestling with over the short-term horizon. My hope is that they will consider an old idea that can be made new again -- co-operatives.

This post is based on a working paper that I presented in 2014 at a one-day CCPA-BC conference called "A Good Jobs Economy in B.C." If you'd like to read my paper, you can find it here. You can find many other excellent papers presented at the conference here.

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